Monday, November 16, 2009
Nowhere Land (Part Four)
Here is the final installment of the excerpt from my book Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream:
When Lennon recorded "God" with the purpose of ending The Beatles' storied myth, he didn't consider that he'd eventually become a casualty in the process. In 1980, he was murdered by a deranged fan who felt the former Beatle had betrayed him. Tragically, he wasn't alone. George Harrison succumbed to cancer in 2001, but he had also been mortally wounded in his home a year earlier by another obsessed fan hearing voices. Contemplating Lennon being killed by the gun, and Harrison nearly by the knife, Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones confronted the sick irony of "such pleasant guys, who made such beautiful music and never did harm to anybody, [having] to go through that kind of violence." Richards seemed to be implying that The Stones, not The Beatles, had always been identified as the bad boys.
In the years following, the world didn't become any easier or easier to understand. In fact, when you looked out into it, you didn't see anybody wanting to hold anybody else's hand. In 2006, a divisive war was raging in Iraq, where the American government had toppled a vicious dictator with the expressed desire of restoring democracy. What they unleashed instead was more religious and sectarian violence than Iraq had seen under Saddam Hussein. In one day, 130 Shiite pilgrims were killed by a suicide bombing in Karbala. On another, an American private was accused of raping an Iraqi teenager and murdering three members of her family, bringing back horrifying echoes of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam a few decades earlier. Bombs killed hundreds on a commuter train in Mumbai, India, in yet another example of fanatical religious terrorism, while Russia continued to exert its force by cutting off gas to the Ukraine over a pricing dispute. Iran continued its nuclear research while declaring the demise of Israel. Not to be outdone by Iran, North Korea decided to start testing its own nuclear missiles. Bin Laden continued to send death-cult videotapes from his hideout, warning of more terrorist attacks. Inquiries began into the CIA over 1,000 detected secret flights over Europe transporting terrorist suspects to countries that allowed torture. Before the year was over, Saddam Hussein was executed yet religious violence continued to tear Iraq apart. Soldiers of the coalition countries were coming back in an endless parade of caskets.
One grey November day, in the face of all this turmoil, among the endless bad news, dull commercials, and impersonal patter, an old Beatles song, the gorgeous John Lennon number called "Because" appeared on the radio. Filled with that blinding romantic spirit Lennon set out to end on Plastic Ono Band, "Because," originally heard on Abbey Road, broke through the aural clutter. But this version was different from the one on the record. It was stripped of its lovely baroque harpsichord, so the group's rich a cappella harmonies shone forth -- as it also sounded on Anthology 3, the CD box of alternate takes. In the midst of reports of death, recrimination, corruption, the opening lines jumped out: "Because the world is round/It turns me on." Was this somebody's idea of a sick joke? Yet somehow, despite all the horrible news dominating the airwaves that day, in a world that wasn't turning anybody on, you couldn't resist the sentiments expressed in the song; those voices were just too achingly gorgeous to write off. Listening to the song made it easier to dismiss all the cheap sarcasm on talk radio, the monotony of the political pundits, and the self-righteous tone of ideologues. The tune seemed to blow away -- momentarily -- all the horrors of the present, and took the listener to a timeless place where it was once again possible to experience the pleasures of harmony. Even with carnage everywhere, Nowhere Land was once again in view. John Lennon hadn't ended the dream back in 1970, only the reality of the group. The renowned pop melodies were still an inseparable part of our own dreams. While the real world around us wasn't changing as we'd hoped it would, the artificial paradise of The Beatles' music remained.
If one rock band in the history of rock music had captured the hearts and souls of an audience, plus the spirit of a decade, it had certainly been The Beatles. Unlike that of any other group, their music found ways to change our expectations of what pop culture could be. They also helped to bring about a cultural revolution that altered our perceptions of what the world around us might become. The Beatles essentially offered a promise that we could all share in. Beyond being a significant part of the cultural history of the sixties, they were a force that shaped that history. Their musical innovations set high standards among their peers, but as a group, they went far beyond the status of being great pop stars. They were pop artists who deliberately gave voice to their time while allowing others, in the process, the means to find their own voices.
The relationship The Beatles developed with their fans over eight years, twelve albums, and dozens of singles became an intense explosion filled with desire. "What The Beatles touched off was dreamlike in particularly deep and intricate ways," Devin McKinney explains in Magic Circles. "Their mania became a huge, open arena for the unregulated discharge of submerged energies -- their own, and the audience's." The explosion they touched off echoed the New Frontier promised by John Kennedy in his 1960 inaugural speech when he implored, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." Kennedy's address, which asked America's citizens to become part of a larger dream, made possible the utopian spirit of The Beatles. When Kennedy's idealistic plea was answered with the gunshots in Dallas in 1963, the country's mournful mood was the answered by The Beatles' new hope a few months after his assassination.
Although they were British, The Beatles' idealism took the form of American rock and rhythm and blues music. And why not? "[They resurrected] music we had ignored, forgotten or discarded, recycling it in a shinier, more feckless and yet more raucous form," wrote music critic Lester Bangs. And they chose the most appropriate music in which to lift our spirits: "In retrospect, it seems obvious that this elevation of our mood had to come from outside the parameters of America's own musical culture, if only because the folk music which then dominated American pop was so tied to the crushed dreams of the New Frontier." From the moment The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, they seemed to resurrect the possibility for a better world. "[It was] the last time we can remember believing that life got better every day rather than worse," Beatles biographer Philip Norman recalls. Author and critic Steve Turner, in The Gospel According to The Beatles, confirms Norman's view, while defining our own complicity in The Beatles' hopes. "During such a time of uncertainty The Beatles represented the best of what people longed for," Turner writes. "They represented laughter rather than tears, hope rather than despair, love rather than hatred, life rather than death."
The joy we heard expressed in The Beatles' best music offered us a binding connection to the group. But while that identification brought both the pleasure and belief those two writers describe, in time it would also bring pain and disappointment. The unending riddle of The Beatles' stamp on popular culture is basically this: how did a band so devoted to love, also attract, and occasionally inspire, such hate? "Within [Beatlemania] the symbolisms of desire, fear, and foreboding ran wild," Devin McKinney asserts. "Under its proscenia, acts were committed which could not be consciously acknowledged for what they were. And under its sway, the dreamer had no power over its components, its direction, or its outcome." Within an open-ended dynamic, the contours of their vision housed a passionate love that was riddled with paradoxes. Although the strong fervor of this romance promised better days, it also carried within it the roots of disillusionment, rage, and ultimately murder. The innocent invitation of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" in 1964, which cast a bright reflection of deep love would, within a few short years, is answered by the shadow of death formed by the grim prescience of "Helter Skelter" in 1968.
To imply that there is a dark side to The Beatles' utopian dream is by no means to say that the dream is false or inherently corrupt. It isn't either/or. Out of this dream grew hope, an honest desire for change, and perhaps a sense of fulfillment that comes with the realization of what that change can mean. From the moment we heard our very first Beatles song, so unlike any other pleasurable form of pop, many of us believed that the real world, if not our own lives, could change into something much finer than we knew. The joy expressed in a composition like "Eight Days a Week" made us believe that love could indeed extend the calendar, even though we knew it couldn't literally be done. Through the confluence of four disparate men coming together at the time they did, with the songs they imagined, we invested hope that the world they invented in those songs was inherently possible. But we then woke up one day to discover that the world hadn't changed for the better. In time, we had to recognize that The Beatles' greatness lay in the way they changed our perspective on the world, rather than their impact on the state of the world.
Some experienced a profound sense of loss over the fact that something so grand, so powerful, could change so little of the world's poverty and the hatred among nations. For others, the end of The Beatles' dream was a betrayal and that no promise would ever again be great enough to make them feel as hopeful again. The void at the heart of this kind of despair would be seen in the actions of a Mark David Chapman. "In one way, or another, this longing for community -- the dream of self-willed equity and harmony, or at least tolerant pluralism in a world where familiar notions of family and accord were breaking down -- would haunt rock's most meaningful moments for the remainder of the decade," writes Mikal Gilmore in his book Night Beat, about the dashed hopes inspired by The Beatles. This specific longing, though, ran deeper and much longer than the decade Gilmore refers to.
That endless struggle to define community is integral to American culture. Back in 1928, just before the dawning of a horrible depression, folk singer Harry McClintock proposed an alternate world in "Big Rock Candy Mountain" where one's worst trepidations could happily vanish. On Bruce Springsteen's Magic (2007), the narrator in "Radio Nowhere" desperately scans the radio dial looking for a song that will pull it all together, make sense of the turbulent tenor of contemporary American life, but he can't find it. He's not just clamoring for some current hit to tap his toes to; he's searching through time to find some meaning that's lost to him, a timeless song that reminds him that he's part of something bigger and not at the mercy of transient tastes, the whims of the moment. His goal, as the song states, is to be delivered from nowhere. "[T]he covenant between Springsteen and his audience remains strong, in part because he gives them permission to go on believing in trust, even when the world seems to offer so few things to deserve it," writes Robert Everett-Green in the Toronto Globe and Mail after a 2007 Springsteen concert in Ottawa, Canada. You can see the cost of that pursuit of a covenant to trust in Tommy Lee Jones's Sheriff Ed Tom Bell, as he walks through the indifferent murderous American landscape in the Coen Brothers' laconic thriller adapted from Cormac McCarthy's novel No Country for Old Men (2007). "[His] last speech is a contemplation of hope, a dream, about however dark and cold the world might be, however long the ride through it might be, that at the end you know that you will go to your father's house and it will be warm, or to a fire that your father has carried and built for you," Jones told a journalist in 2008. "The last sentence of the movie is, 'And then I woke up.' It's a contemplation of the idea of hope, is it an illusion? Is it just a dream? And if it is, is the dream real?" The question of whether it is all real or an illusion, a question John Lennon posed explicitly in "Strawberry Fields Forever," always remained at the heart of The Beatles' vision. Those of us seeking the covenant they offered were searching for something outside the world we were fated to live in.
But the America that The Beatles bonded with in the sixties, despite the Vietnam War and racial iniquity, still had a covenant worth believing in. In the wake of the Iraq War, profoundly hysterical anti-Americanism had replaced a critical distinction between what was rich and true in the culture and what was empty and false. You can see that lack of distinction, too, in the fatalistic world of Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be Blood (2007). The picture strikes an empty pose that's devoid of a vision. It offers up a preordained polemical statement that provides little insight and no surprises. Anderson's epic tale of American betrayal implies that there was no American Dream to betray since it was already a nightmare to begin with. The movie provides no tragic dimension to the teeming avarice of the oil man played by Daniel Day-Lewis. Where Walt Whitman once distinguished between an art that decided presidential elections and an art that made those elections irrelevant, There Will Be Blood became art that's too busy counting its ballots. There is no grandeur to the deceived dream to even care about its loss. The Beatles give the lie to the kind of narrow assertions that Anderson deals in by marrying themselves to the most vital and exciting aspects of American culture, the kind that outstrips partisan polemics. They built a dream world based on America's conflicting temptations -- its promises and its failings -- which offer us a wider definition of community, one that also attracts many diverse citizens.
"The durability of The Beatles surpasses pretty much any other music I know," critic Dave Marsh wrote in 2007. "And as much as it belongs to the waking world, it belongs to dreams." It's been close to forty years since the demise of The Beatles, yet they continue to exist in an ethereal place existing somewhere between the waking world and the world of our dreams. From there, The Beatles continue to operate in the realm of our imagination, no matter what shape the world happens to be in. Yet because of The Beatles, we still try to imagine, as well as desire, better worlds to live in. The Beatles' music over the years had become a lifeline for many people, as "Heartbreak Hotel" had been for Lennon when he was a boy. What the re-emergence of "Because" proved was that the music had still retained a distinct quality where The Beatles' spellbinding musical wizardry could always provide hope. But it was a hope that lives only in the realm of our imagination. The Beatles' music didn't, nor could it, make our lives and the world around us better. Even so, there was a promise made in The Beatles' music, but it was a promise that the group (which broke up acrimoniously) couldn't keep. All promises that don't come true, though, can't be considered equal. Film critic Pauline Kael once concluded her consideration of Warren Beatty's Reds (1981), a movie about the ultimate betrayal of political ideals, by saying that promises broken are not the same as promises that can't be kept. In the years ahead, when it came to The Beatles, we came to learn the difference between those types of promises. So did The Beatles.
Excerpt from the book Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles' Utopian Dream (Praeger, 2009).
Posted by Critics at Large at 9:19 AM